Keen to forge her own path, Ritu Phogat decided to become the first member of her illustrious family to pursue the field of MMA or Mixed Martial Arts – a far cry from the traditional sport of wrestling she was brought up on.
It takes a woman of unusual courage to leave her family behind and survive alone in a foreign land while the world is in the grip of a pandemic. Ritu Phogat, younger sibling of the famous ‘Dangal’ sisters, is certainly a woman of unusual courage. Keen to forge her own path, she decided to become the first member of her illustrious family to pursue the field of MMA or Mixed Martial Arts – a far cry from the traditional sport of wrestling she was brought up on. “I transitioned to MMA when I was at the peak of my wrestling career. The decision was triggered by an underrepresentation of Indian women in the sport, and I wanted India to be visible to the world in the MMA space. Fortunately, my sisters and father have been very supportive, and I want to prove myself worthy of their steadfast belief,” she says with pride.
Despite her lack of exposure to this new field, she has done exceptionally well, even earning herself the title of ‘The Indian Tigress’. Having won six of her first seven fights since making the transition to the MMA circuit, this 27-year-old is now ready to take on the ultimate challenge – the semi-final match in the upcoming ONE: NextGen Women’s Atom weight World Grand Prix where she will fight Japanese judoka, Itsuki Hirata, who has not yet been defeated in a single match this season.
In the run up to the match slated to take place on Friday, October 29, Phogat has left no stone unturned in her training. “My single-most focus is on the Grand Prix, and it is now closer than I ever imagined. It is important for both me and my country because it would place an Indian woman on the global MMA stage. India has never had a female MMA champion in the past and now it is time for this to change,” she declares.
For the uninitiated, MMA is a full-contact combat sport based on moves that include the likes of striking, grappling and ground fighting, using techniques of various combat sports including boxing, kickboxing and martial arts from around the world.ONE Championship™ or ONE as is it better known, is the leading MMA sports enterprise in the world and regularly hosts a number of events. Phogat emerged victorious in last month’s ONE: Empower when she beat highly-ranked Meng Bo from China, which qualified her for the upcoming semi-final match.
Forsaking her career in wrestling despite the upcoming Olympics, Phogat moved to Singapore to concentrate on her training for the MMA circuit. She does not regret giving up on the Olympics, believing MMA to be the right platform for her to shine in her own right. However, living and training in Singapore has not been easy for her. “There are many restrictions in our training regime, but I don’t let that affect my match. Due to Covid-19, we are only allowed to train with one partner which is troublesome as it doesn’t allow us to diversify our game. Plus, living away from home, all alone, is quite tough. When I fall ill, I have to take care of myself, and I miss my home food and the comfort of loved ones, but I remain focussed on my goal of wanting to achieve something and that helps me overcome these hurdles,” she explains.
With Diwali around the corner, this separation from her family has been even tougher. She adds, “I’m missing Diwali celebrations for a second year in a row, but I believe the best Diwali gift to my family and all my fans will be if I win at the semi-finals. I’ve been away from home and that has been the grim reality for a while but then I know it will eventually be worth it.”
Phogat is certainly a tough cookie, but she also has a creative side. When asked who would play her role in a potential biopic of her life, she emphatically says she would like to play it herself. “I’m interested in modelling and acting because I believe I’m multi-talented. After MMA, I would like to try my hand at it for sure,” she says with a smile.
For now, however, her focus is entirely on her upcoming fight with Hirata. Currently following a strict training schedule of twice a day and six times a week, she shares, “It is always effort over excuses for me. Sometimes, I even train thrice a day because my father has always told me that hard work is the only shortcut to winning a championship. Like they rightly say, hard work betrays none, and focus and efforts are well within your circle of influence. The more I train, the more confident I am and the more equipped I am, the more unassailable I am. From wrestling and strength conditioning to sparring and striking, my training covers a vast set of MMA skills.”
The results of this match are much awaited and extremely important, as the winner will go on to the final match of this championship. But it doesn’t end there. The declared champion from the final match will go on to play Angela Lee, who currently holds the World No. 1 title and is often referred to as ‘Unstoppable’. The bout against Lee is expected to take place early next year, and Phogat has her eyes set on the prize.
Phogat is a unique yet relatable female icon – one who has chosen a path less trodden and shone despite the odds. She signs off with this sage advice for women athletes in particular, and women in general, “As long as you believe that you can do it, you have done it already. It won’t always be easy, but whatever comes your way will only make you stronger. Your hard work will determine the speed of your journey, so keep at it. Let’s open up opportunities for each other to grow, encourage and empower. Just remember to stay focussed on your goal, as dedication is the key to achieving your dreams.”
The writer pens lifestyle articles for various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com. She can be reached on email@example.com.